Shirley Collado still remembers the bus ride.
Shortly after Collado, now the president of Ithaca College in upstate New York, graduated from high school in Brooklyn in 1990, she boarded a bus bound for Nashville and Vanderbilt University, her home for the next four years.
She left behind an Afro-Caribbean immigrant community bubbling with culture: a pizza joint on one corner, an empanada stand across the street, different languages shouted joyfully up and down the block. Her outfit that late summer day was an expression of what she called her “evolving feminist” personality: ripped jeans, a faded, worn T-shirt, suede combat boots and extremely short hair, bucking the trend of long locks traditionally worn by Dominican Catholic young women.
She stepped off the bus and “into a different planet,” she recalled. Vanderbilt was predominately white, Christian and conservative. Collado stood out and she knew it.
But she wasn’t deterred. Her mission was twofold: Vanderbilt was going to help her get a college education — she would be the first in her family to do so — and she was going to help Vanderbilt increase its diversity.
Now 48 and the leader of a predominantly white institution — and the first Dominican American president of a four-year college — Collado knows what it feels like to the be the only person of color in the room. She knows the pitfalls of a student body and faculty dominated by only one demographic, and how many students are left behind when that happens. She’s been ready for change for decades.
“The academy (of higher education) has struggled with a lot of the same issues over and over again,” she said. “Now, we have to stop dealing with it in the perimeter. Instead of having a diversity ‘plan’ or ‘task force’ or special office, we need to put this issue at our core.”
And this time, she thinks it might really happen.
In the wake of the protests following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous other people of color, the nation has been rocked by a racial reckoning that’s forced many to reflect about their role in being actively antiracist — or not. This includes power brokers in higher education, many of whom believe their institutions can be leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion.
For decades, universities have touted diversity committees and task forces without their student body or faculty demographic actually changing substantially, if at all. But some see this time as different.
“I’m a hopeful skeptic,” said Kimberly Griffin, a professor and associate dean of graduate studies and faculty affairs at the University of Maryland, who is also the editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. “I think what’s different about this moment is that our approach and understanding of what the problem is is shifting. … More institutions are looking at themselves and asking, ‘What are the barriers we’ve created, what are the structural changes we need to engage in?’ We seem to finally be understanding that instead of fixing people, we need to fix the institutions.”
Warning that there is no one program that can create a new system overnight, Griffin also pointed to the importance of tenure, a critical achievement for faculty members who want to play a role in long-term change.
“Tenure is not just, ‘We can’t fire you,’” Griffin explained. “Tenure opens the door to leadership within the institution — if you want to be a department chair or have a voice on a committee that creates institutional change and governance around campus, the primary way to do that is through tenure.”
Most colleges and universities across the nation are considered predominantly white institutions but a small sect — including historically Black colleges and universities — can be classified as minority-serving institutions based on student demographics.
California State University is the nation’s largest public university system, with more than 480,000 students and 23 campuses — 21 of which are classified as Hispanic serving institutions, meaning at least 25% of students are Hispanic. Since its inception, CSU has prided itself on recruiting and retaining a diverse student body, a task some might consider challenging without affirmative action, which California does not have.
“I would say that overly relying on any one tool to achieve any goal — especially a goal that’s a complex, ever-evolving challenge — that’s never a good thing,” said Luoluo Hong, CSU’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management. “CSU’s success reflects that whether or not we have affirmative action in our toolkit, we’re going to focus very consciously” on recruiting students and faculty of color. Affirmative action, she said, “is only a beginning” for any university that can legally use it. It cannot become a crutch.
Building a diverse student body can’t be the end either, Hong stressed: “We have to do the things that will make diversity stick.”
CSU’s schools, like others across the country, have specific programs in place designed to help dismantle barriers for students of color, many of whom are also first-generation students and/or from a lower socioeconomic status.
Adrian Hall is a senior in general and allied health sciences at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He’s also the president of the Latino Student Union and an active member of Laker Familia, a program designed to help students who self-identify as Hispanic or Latinx find a network of support at a school where more than 80% of students are white.
“Your anxiety goes through the roof the second you notice you’re the only student of color in the room,” Hall said. Programs like Laker Familia don’t just help students of color feel comfortable, he said, but show those students that the university is committed to their success by creating a welcoming environment. He hopes more schools implement programs like Laker Familia.
“We need broader perspectives for everybody,” Hall said. “History, for example, shouldn’t just be through the eyes of our white founding fathers — there is more to the story that we don’t see. What I know for sure is adding more students of color and faculty of color gives you those different perspectives.”
Collado at Ithaca agrees. And she sees diversity, equity and inclusion as the root of a new system, not merely a branch that can snap off and disappear.
“We have to tackle the entire structure, and bake it into our DNA,” Collado said. “Because when we’re in the middle of a crisis, which we are right now, guess what’s the first thing to go? All the peripheral stuff, all the special programs for students of color.
“When you make it part of your core, it’s hard — but it’s also harder to make it go away.”